Howard Dean -- the thinker

Posted: Dec 07, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean is no fool. He is, however, not much of a thinker. His talk flows as rapidly as a mountain brook, but is no deeper than one of those.

He is the candidate of America's professorate and others whose strongest passion is as much aesthetic as political -- intellectual contempt for George W. Bush. But Dean's bantam-rooster pugnacity is not unlike Bush's shoulders-squared jauntiness that critics consider an enraging swagger. Bush's imperturbable certitude infuriates Dean's supporters because they believe it arises not from reflection but from reflex. Actually, Dean really resembles his supporters' idea of Bush.

Appearing on ``Hardball'' with the human Gatling gun, Chris Matthews, Dean said that in terms of legal rights there is no practical difference between same-sex civil unions and marriages. Matthews: ``So why are we quibbling over a name?'' Dean: ``Because marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious.''

So, the argument about the public meaning of marriage is merely a semantic quibble important only to the ``pretty religious''? Dean has said of his faith that ``I don't think it informs my politics,'' and that he became a Congregationalist ``because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over a bike path.'' Fine. His faith, whatever it is, is his business and no disqualification for the presidency. But his qualifications supposedly include a searching intellect. Where is the evidence?

Asked by Matthews whether he supports state right-to-work laws protecting the right of workers not to join a union, Dean said no. But he also said ``I very much believe that states ought to have the right to recognize -- to organize their own laws. So I'm not likely as president ... to order states to change them.'''

Order states? Imagine the media derision if Bush ever suggested such an understanding of federalism.

In his next breath, Dean said that if Congress sends to his presidential desk legislation denying states that right that he ``very much'' believes they ought to have -- the right to have right-to-work laws -- ``I'd sign it in an instant.'' This is the intellectuals' candidate?

If Osama bin Laden is captured, Dean says ``it doesn't make a lot of difference'' whether he is tried in America or the International Criminal Court. After all, ``we are allowing the Bosnian war criminals to be tried'' in the Hague. Question: Is it relevant that the Bosnians' crimes were not committed in America?

Dean promises ``to break up giant media enterprises'' -- General Electric, News Corporation, etc. -- because there is ``information control'' that ``is not compatible with democracy.'' Question: Given the Internet and other new media, and the consequently declining importance of broadcast networks and other traditional filters of information, has there ever been less reason to use ``information control'' as an excuse for expanding government regulation of information media?

Asked to name his favorite philosopher, Dean named Lao-Tse because ``my favorite saying is, `The longest journey begins with a single step.''' That might make a better bumper sticker than anything David Hume said, but if that measures the depths of Dean, he and his supporters should take a sabbatical from deriding Bush's supposed shallowness.

America needs what Dean seems intellectually and temperamentally ill-equipped to provide -- truly thoughtful opposition in an election that should turn on two huge issues. One is: How do we guarantee economic growth sufficient to generate tax revenues to finance a welfare state whose entitlement menu is being substantially expanded just as 77 million baby boomers are about to retire? The second is: Can America's security be attained without adopting foreign policy goals of unattainable grandiosity -- nation-building, regional transformations?

Dean has provided no reason to expect from him especially elevated reasoning about these things. He seems to be an Everett Wharton. ``The Prime Minister,'' one of Anthony Trollope's parliamentary novels, introduces Wharton, who was, Trollope wrote, ``no fool'':

``(He) had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men's thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself -- but he thought that he thought.''

Dean seems like that, which is not surprising or disqualifying: Most political leaders are not people of reflection, but of ambition-dictated action, living off borrowed intellectual capital. Given the accumulating evidence, the professors' pin-up should dismount his intellectual high horse.